Tripping Ontario’s Two Great Canals

Story by Iori Miller

Many serious paddlers look a year or more ahead when planning the contents of their bucket list.  But how many were able to follow the plans they made for the summer of 2020? Probably very few. The Covid-19 pandemic hit Canada mid-winter and by the summer travel options changed from one week to the next: the Quebec-Ontario border was open, then it was not; the Atlantic bubble was slammed shut throughout; Labrador and the Territories only allowed for essential goods to cross their borders all year. It was impossible to post trips on the Wilderness Canoe Association’s website because of insurance reasons, so many of us planned short trips on weekends just with members of our own ‘bubble’, or with immediate friends whom we trusted to be minimizing their contact with others

So, in order to still have something in our lives in 2020, many of us were forced to look closer to home for our adventures.

“…the time was perfect to finally paddle the Rideau Canal.

During that summer, governments everywhere were begging people to minimize their number of physical contacts. Since crossing even provincial borders was hard, I decided in July that the time was perfect to finally paddle the Rideau Canal. In August I had been planning for over a year to undertake a paddle of Quebec’s majestic Moisie River, but the pandemic’s circumstances nixed that. When that plan began to look impossible, I decided, “why not just keep paddling canals?” So, in August I set out to solo a good chunk of the Trent-Severn Canal, about 240 km from Georgian Bay to Lakefield, near Peterborough.

A year later, in the summer of 2021 and still mired in the Covid pandemic, I did finally paddle the Moisie River, but I also re-paddled half of the Rideau Canal and completed the last 120 km of the Trent-Severn Canal – the portion between Lakefield to Lake Ontario. Obviously, I have developed an appreciation for paddling these canals, and this has led me to make an argument here for why wilderness canoeists should also paddle these historic waterways.

The Two Canals

The Rideau Canal and the Trent-Severn Canals are managed by National Parks Canada. The original reasons for each construction were in fact, never met, and today the principal purpose of each is recreational. 

Canal Summaries

1. The Rideau Canal

The Rideau Canal

The Rideau canal was originally built for military reasons. During the war of 1812 with the USA (their ‘Revolutionary War’ with Britain) the Province of Quebec (the first name for Canada) recognized that there was a risk moving goods east and west on the St. Lawrence River so close to the US border. So, barely a decade later, it was decided to build a canal that would allow goods to move a more north-south route and avoid most of said border. The Rideau Canal was constructed by the Royal Engineers and utilized a route through the Rideau Lakes and connected to the Ottawa River. Remarkably, the canal was built in only 6 years! However, there never was another American invasion and the canal was actually used more to transport trade goods and immigrants into the vast lands to be settled in Ontario’s interior.

2. The Trent-Severn Canal

The idea of the Trent-Severn Waterway was conceived around the time of the Rideau Canal’s completion, but it was meant to serve more of a commercial than military value. Initially, the purpose was for a route to move goods back and forth from the lower great lakes to the upper lakes. While avoiding the problem of Niagara Falls, it was also thought it could deliver goods in and out of central Ontario. Unfortunately, boat sizes quickly grew beyond the size of the locks being constructed, roads and railways infiltrated the province, and the Welland canal was constructed with the capacity to handle the larger ocean-going vessels that plied the great lakes. With these changing conditions the canal was built in fits and starts between 1879 and 1920 and has only ever existed for recreational boat use.

Between the two canals there is almost 500 km to paddle. Generally, one can camp mostly at the locks themselves, although there are a few stretches where the distances between locks is over 30 km and thus beyond the average paddler’s daily abilities. With careful planning, however, a provincial park or marina with camping facilities can serve to ameliorate the problem of where to rest for the night.

Camping at the locks

Why Choose to Paddle the Canals?

I had always thought it would be fun to paddle from Lake Ontario all the way up to Ottawa. In a summer where most people were sticking close to home, and few wanted to join anyone else on a trip where they might catch Covid, I decided it would be just fine to solo the Rideau Canal. In the end, some friends (fellow WCA members, Marcin Komorowski & Agata Wisniowska) joined me for the adventure … and brought their two shiny little dogs (Kropka and Misiu). Covid pandemic aside, the toughest part was a tortuous week of record hot July weather! Sunny skies yes, but really rough on the pooches.

As someone who enjoys the whole of backcountry camping, generally, the longer the trip the better. In contrast, many who paddle the canals only go for a day or two. But paddling end to end is an accomplishment: seeing the whole thing is experiencing a piece of Canada’s history in a way no book can deliver. For a novice canoeist/camper, perhaps someone desiring a paddle beyond a simple overnight in their local conservation area, or provincial park, completing 5 nights (or more) on one of these canals is a significant step toward a serious backcountry adventure. 

“…paddling a part or whole of either canal is very easy to plan…”

Even for the inexperienced tripper, paddling a part or whole of either canal is very easy to plan: just go to your local supermarket, stroll down the breakfast aisle, the lunch aisle, and the dinner aisle, casually planning as you walk — when you get home toss your meals into a canoe barrel — all you still need are the few camping essentials like a tent, sleeping bag and a stove. A good road map and a cell phone (google maps) can get you from A to B, no problem. Although I would also recommend some cash and a bicycle lock (to leave your canoe locked to a tree), because some of the canal’s locks are located just a short walk from grocery stores, coffee shops, and even pubs!  It’s not a pub crawl — it’s a pub-paddle! But be sure to wait until after you’ve stopped to camp. Paddling sober is required under Ontario’s laws.

The people who run the canal locks are of all ages: some are career employees; many are summer University students. They are all friendly as they know it’s part of the job: all the people using the canals are tourists, and all are there to enjoy themselves. As the canals are part of Parks Canada, the employees on the locks are very knowledgeable about Canal history and they are happy to share it. Some of the canal locks are still operated by the original gear mechanisms, yet some have been modernized.

Opening and closing the Lock’s Gates. The old way, and the new.

One thing to mention: if you are new to canoeing and would love to try a longer trip, paddling the canals is a GREAT way to start. You can camp anywhere on the lawns of the locks for a mere $5 per person/night (just beware of Canada Geese poop as they love the locks too), and if you arrive before Lock closing time, and pay ☺, you’ll get a key or combination to the washroom.  Camping never gets easier! Also, for a small price (for example, in 2020 a 16′ canoe cost $8.99/ft x 16’ = $144 to pass through the locks for the whole season, for both canals) you too can cruise through the locks themselves with the bigger boats. Personally, I generally chose to stretch my legs and portage my canoe, but in some cases the lockmasters just let me ride on through for free. 

Passing through the locks.

If your schedule is to do the whole canal system in 10+ days, you don’t have to carry all your food from the beginning.  You can buy some fresh food on the way! But I wouldn’t advise anyone to expect to be able to buy all their food every day.  No.  Best to always play it safe; have enough to get yourself through most of the way, and if you finish with extra, so be it.

Experience Needed

The canals are like any lake or river paddle. You should have some experience with day paddling and canoe camping. You probably should take topo maps, or charts, and a cell phone for emergencies (most areas on the canals have decent cell phone coverage). Any hiking app, like Alltrails, comes in handy to track your route and daily distances, but Google maps will help you navigate as well. If you set out to paddle the full length of a canal you should have some knowledge of your abilities (strength, endurance, meal preparation, staying dry over a period of days, etc.)

Here are the itineraries I might follow if I were to do either Canal again. You should plan yours according to your own abilities and time available.

Sample Canal Itineraries

A Few Final Notes Based on My Experience

Generally, camping at the locks along the Canals is painless and quite comfortable (glamping!).  As I said before, if you arrive before Canal closing times you will be told how to access the washroom facilities on site. They are closed to the general public when the canal locks are closed for the day, but available to campers once the paltry fee is paid. In a few, they don’t recommend you drink the water from the taps. I always carry a water filter on any trip. The one thing you must pre-plan is the distances between the locks. Sometimes they are too far to paddle in one day, so I looked for Provincial Parks or somewhere that had camping (see the Island Marina on my Rideau itinerary). I successfully ‘bush crashed’ once because the campground I was depending on was closed during Covid, and two times I prevailed upon friends with cottages on the route (not showing). At $5/night at the locks the overall cost is cheap!

Many people who canoe the Canals just buy a season pass to pass through the locks. The pass works for both canals during one season. If you are like me, you actually want to get out of your canoe and stretch, so I chose to portage the locks. Along the Rideau Canal there is an easily accessible platform and sign provided at the beginning and end of each “portage route.” But not always so for the Trent Severn! Along that canal it sometimes requires as much as a 3’ climb in and out of a canoe.  Overall, the Rideau Canal is MUCH more canoe friendly.

Rideau Canal – Portage Platform
Trent Canal – NO Portage Platform!

Besides dodging the Canada Geese that frequent the lawns of the Locks, there are often numerous people who turn up to collect a dinner of freshwater fish. It appeared to me that many of these people were not following guidelines as I saw many fishing until they had a full pail of fish. Two friends fishing often meant two pails of fish taken. 

Fishing at the locks.

Generally, I didn’t find the lakes along either canal too big to deal with … except Lake Simcoe.   This big lake is relatively shallow, and there is over 15 km of open water required between the north shore and the ‘big ditch’ section of the canal on the east side of the lake. When I paddled it, a friend texted me that the wind direction and speed would be favourable for my NW to SE traverse. In the end, I endured 34 km/hr wind gusts across the lake from the west that pushed me off course, and I ended up wind bound in Lagoon City. The waves I rode were 3 to 4 feet high, and when I did flip over I was lucky that I was only about 100m from shore. I ended up getting a shuttle 10 km south, and back onto the canal at the Gamebridge Lock.  

Most of the bigger lakes along the Canals can be ‘cheated’ during high winds by sticking close to shore and strategically planning what time of day you cross. I think Lake Simcoe’s an exception.   Either budget a potential windbound day for it, or arrange a shuttle to avoid it altogether. I was rather lucky that it only left me with a humble smile and the realization that weather Apps are not always to be trusted.

The Big Chute Marine Railway, Trent-Severn Canal. (boats are carried!)

Lastly, the Rideau is an older and more simply designed Canal. Paddling it from Kingston to Ottawa takes you initially through a lot of agrarian and cottage country, but the last day or two is through a lot of Ottawa’s suburbs. Be prepared to see both sides of the canal/Rideau River lined with monster homes and power boats.  In contrast, the cobbled together Trent-Severn Canal system connects Georgian Bay with Balsam Lake of the Kawarthas and follows its waterways all the way through the Trent River to Lake Ontario. The locks themselves on this route are often more elaborate, and some are technical marvels quite complicated in their design. There is plenty to see and experience on these canals throughout the entirety of each. These are not wilderness routes, but they are rich in history and beauty, and paddling them during the Covid Pandemic was safe and a lot of fun!

End of the Rideau Canal

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